Two Gobblers from the East End
A few years ago my husband and I spent an early spring weekend on the East End of Long Island, visiting galleries and antique shops, having dinners at good restaurants, and listening to the ocean waves. Idyllic, to say the least.
As we delight in antiques, we headed first to those shops. In one of them I spotted a beautiful, vintage Limoges Turkey Porcelain Figurine that was sitting on the shelf. Its tag had a terse, weird description: “Wild Turkey Hen.”
I turned to my husband and asked with a smile: “What’s the difference between a domestic and a wild turkey hen, especially in a porcelain figurine?”
Instead of waiting for my husband’s answer, the gentleman, who was standing next to us, answered: “Well, apparently, there’s a big difference, according to my grandmother’s stories.”
“Is this your grandmother’s relic?” I asked without concealing my genuine interest.
“No, no, this figurine has nothing to do with my grandmother. Your question just reminded me her stories about turkeys, stories that became legends for me and my siblings,” elaborated the gentleman. “Domestic gobblers and wild turkey hens did something unheard of and people on East End were talking about it for a very long time.”
“The difference between domestic and wild is probably in its weight,” I suggested to our newfound turkey expert.
“No, not just in its weight. A wild spirit, freedom and, probably, something else that we will never know.”
“You intrigued me now and I would like to hear the story,” I said with real curiosity.
“It’s, actually, two tales, two stories about two gobbles and two wild turkey hens from the 19th century.”
The gentleman eagerly began his narrative and escorted us back in time more than 100 years.
The native “Eastender” said his grandmother told him these stories when he was about 8 years old and then she repeated them many times – always with original pleasure. The stories, in fact, took a place in her youth, when she was a teenager in the 1880s.
Her family had a farm in the East End with many animals and fowl, including turkeys. One spring day a gobbler vanished from the farm. Every family member looked for the bird everywhere. They spent several days searching for it but, sadly, they couldn’t even find a feather.
Then, one day, a girl – the gentleman’s grandmother – spotted the gobbler sitting in the tree. She said she recognized him only because of the turkey’s unusual tail – grey with golden accent. The girl managed to seize the bird and brought it home, but next day he flew the coop again.
She tracked him down again and returned him home only to have him run off yet again the next day. The young lass once more found him in the same tree. The gentleman’s grandmother was dumbfounded by these ritual escapes for several days.
The family discussed what to do with this disobedient bird and decided to ask a neighbor if he would agree to trade his turkey for their bird just to confuse the gobbler so he wouldn’t wander off the next time.
Next morning, the man of the house was on his way to the neighbor’s farm, when he noticed his bird in the company of a young wild turkey with a few newly born chicks.
The farmer was stunned by what he had just seen. Instead being frightened, the gobbler became angry and his snood enlarged and turned redder than it was. The defiant bird dashed into the woods with his new family.
The farmer came home and ordered his entire family to find the disloyal bird and bring him home. Sadly, they couldn’t find the gobbler anywhere in the woods. Apparently, tom turkey truly disappeared.
Next spring, the gentleman’s grandmother incredulously spied at a distance the gobbler with a new family. He was visibly protecting his hen and chicks, doing everything tom turkey does to ensure his family is safe. The gobbler looked very happy and very proud.
I was listening with amazement to the turkey tale while holding the old porcelain turkey in my hands, surprised to learn that the world of birds has cheaters and lovers!
Our friend resumed his account, saying: “Yes, the gobbler quit the shelter, food, and his barnyard wife for something better – a new life under a sky that is not always blue in the wild, where there’s danger but perhaps also a life with real love that’s called turkey love.”
“That’s one turkey tale. If you have time and patience, I’ll tell you another one.”
My husband replied: “Of course! Why not? The gobbler became the most famous feathered Don Juan on East End, right?”
“Probably. But here is another story. My grandmother’s neighbor also had a beautiful gobbler. One year or so after my granny’s gobbler left the farm, her neighbor’s tom turkey – equally young and attractive, crept also away from the farm and disappeared in the near woods. It was a time when the hen was laying eggs to have offspring. After a few days, when he hadn’t returned, the hen apparently became so enraged that she trampled all of her eggs, destroying every single one.”
My grandmother said farmers had never seen such an infuriated turkey. She was frantic!
After destroying her brood, the hen became very despondent and lost interest in her surroundings.
But in the fall, the gobbler suddenly returned home. He was looked exhausted and unhappy. He approached the barnyard and stood there for a long time, gazing contritely at his first mate.
Tom turkey started what seemed like a conversation, or confession, with his wife in turkey language, but she was silent. At the end of his repentant monologue, the hen screeched very loudly. The wayfarer tried to approach her but she rejected him and strutted away.
After a few days or so, the farmhands were working in the fields and spotted on the road that leads from the woods a wild turkey hen with a few chicks walking to the cage where the recently reunited couple lived for several days.
The farmers were quietly observing this scene and waiting anxiously to see what will happen next.
The wild hen and her kids approached the property and cautiously stood for a few moments. The tom turkey slowly walked toward them and began a conversation, or explanation. The wild hen was clearly waiting for that moment. She retorted loudly with angry turkey sounds. The conversation was a short but very intense. The chicks were hushed.
Then the first wife rapidly dashed from the shed, stopped next to tom and uttered just one turkey sentence, a curt sound, and afterward everyone fell silent.
Upon hearing his first wife, the chastised gobbler lost his brave posture and dignity. He slowly skulked back into the shed. The wild hen turned around, said something to her kids and they returned to the woods.
When they were almost at the tree line, humiliated tom turkey stepped out of the shed and silently stared after his mistress and the kids. The domestic wife articulated something but he chose not to reply”.
The gentleman finished his story saying: “They’ve lived for a few years, quite peacefully, like neighbors that have nothing in common.”
He added with a smile: “Neighbors’ tom turkey chose to return as wild love for him was too much, better was to have security than love. Both gobblers, probably, felt, what we call, in love, but the only my grandmother’s gobbler find real love and never returned to previous life. What was so special about wild turkey hens: wild spirit, freedom or something else? My grandmother always asked us that question at the end of her favorite stories.”
We thanked the stranger and I put a porcelain figurine back on the shelf and left the store as I wanted to transcribe everything that he told us, just to remember these unique, astonishing and timeless stories.
Returning home, I was thinking that with a good imagination both stories could be bases for fairy tales as they would spark interest in readers, but only the story that happened in the family of an old gentleman could appropriately have a traditional ending “And they lived happily ever after.”
Surely, the stranger from the East End would be happy to know that his grandmother’s story has been reconstructed with words. I did my best to recall everything he told us in the antique shop. Unfortunately, I never asked his name, I don’t know anything about him, but I believe that his story has the right to be retold as much as because it is part of the East End history, as it was a part of the turkey world.